21 deaths a day: Families affected by opioid crisis want Parliament Hill flag lowered – National

Deaths from opioid toxicity have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting calls for the flag on Parliament Hill to be flown at half-mast in honor of those who have died.

This call comes from Senator Vernon White, a former Ottawa Police Chief, as well as family members who have lost loved ones to the current opioid crisis.

“There are 30,000 reasons to fly the Canadian flag at half-mast,” Steve Smith, who lost his stepdaughter to an opioid overdose last summer, told Global News in a statement.

“Because we have to remember 30,000 victims. Show families they are not alone. Let Canada care. It can stop someone from using drugs or motivate people to get well.

Between January 2016 and December 2021, there were more than 29,000 deaths from opioid toxicity in the country, according to Health Canada. On a day when the flag was lowered to half-mast in recognition of those lives, Smith said, “that shouldn’t be too much to ask.”

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“Families live with their loss every day,” the statement said.

Although White and the Smith family have both had conversations with the government about the matter, their request has yet to be granted.

Their wish was, initially, to see the flag lowered on International Overdose Awareness Day. But that day has passed on August 31 – with no sign of the flag dropping.

“I don’t have much hope,” White told Global News in an interview.

“I actually think that and many are afraid to talk about it.”

In a statement sent to Global News, the office of Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Carolyn Bennett defended the decision not to lower the flag.

Government buildings across the country were flooded with purple light on Overdose Awareness Day, they said, and the minister spent the day meeting with families in Sudbury, Ont., who have been affected by the problem.

“This trip was a heartbreaking reminder of the work ahead of us in our fight to end this crisis and save more lives,” a Bennett spokesperson said.

“We are grateful to everyone who met us, and to the heroic individuals and organizations across Canada who continue to fight for better services for people who use drugs in honor of all those who have lost life from an overdose.

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The government has not said whether it remains open to lowering the flag.

The opioid crisis is worsening in Canada

In the years leading up to the pandemic, there were between eight and 12 deaths a day related to opioid toxicity in the country, according to Health Canada. But in 2021, a staggering average of 21 people died every day from opioid toxicity.

That’s more than 7,500 people’s lives ending in 2021 alone, in what Health Canada has called an “overdose crisis.”

Compared to the previous year, there was a 96% increase in opioid-related deaths after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – which Health Canada says could be attributable to a number of factors, including an “increasingly toxic drug supply, an increased sense of isolation, stress and anxiety, and changes in the availability or accessibility of services for people who use drugs.

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The opioid crisis is also swallowing up different demographics. While Health Canada says young to middle-aged men continue to be most affected, White warned that opioids are blind with their victims.

“I don’t think we fully understand who is affected by this. I mean, I easily know 10 or 15 families who have lost someone to an accidental drug overdose,” he said.

“We are talking about average, normal families… a husband and wife in North Vancouver who both had good middle-income jobs and a child at home, who both overdosed after buying counterfeit drugs and (died ) the night.

Wendy Muckle is the CEO of Ottawa Inner City Health, an organization that provides health care services to homeless and street-involved communities in Ottawa. It also operates a safe consumption site for people who use drugs.

As a community, she says, people who use drugs — and those who live and work alongside them — feel “very alone.”

“It’s impossible on any day of the week not to hear about someone else who has passed away… people you’ve known for many, many years and know extremely well,” said Muckle.

“We are at war in this other world, and no one else really knows we are at war…. We cry all the time and no one seems to cry with us.

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Lowering the flag is the minimum – but a start

Chad Bouthillier works at the safe consumption site operated by Ottawa Inner City Health. He supports calls to lower the flag as a symbolic gesture for those affected by the opioid crisis – but he warned that the gesture alone will not solve the problem.

“Lowering a flag will not prevent people from dying. I think a lot of things have to happen,” he said.

“And I know it’s hard to get all these things done.”

Addiction, Bouthillier said, comes from “pain.” Violence, mental health issues, and housing instability all contribute to the kind of pain people feel. Drug use, he added, fills this “void”.

“Once they take a certain type of drug, like (an) opioid, it becomes a physical need where their body depends on that drug,” Bouthillier explained.

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That’s why abstinence-only approaches don’t work, according to Bouthillier, and harm reduction approaches need to be prioritized.

The government can do a number of things to start reducing harm and tackling the opioid crisis, Muckle said.

Decriminalizing simple drug possession would be a good first step, according to Muckle, while ensuring that housing is available to all Canadians. Providing access to a safer drug supply could also help reduce the harm caused by the opioid crisis, she added.

“It’s very difficult for the government to swallow this whole long list of demands,” Muckle said.

“But unless we can actually make all of these changes happen, we’re not going to get ahead of that. And that’s the problem…everyone is doing their best and everyone thinks they’re doing it. what he can do, but we are not making progress.

As for the push to lower the flag, Smith and White aren’t backing down. It’s about awareness, White said.

“It could happen to anyone. And the families that I know, they were like me, (it) could have been me just as easily, could have been my kids,” he said.

“So I think that’s the recognition we need to give people.”

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Meanwhile, as advocates wait for government action, more Canadians continue to die from opioid toxicity every day.

“It’s hard to imagine any other condition in Canada where 21 people a day were dying – every day – and the government and the public didn’t take that seriously,” Muckle said.

“When you think that 21 people a day in this country are dying from a completely preventable situation, it’s frankly shameful.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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